I believe there is a way of thinking about genius that could powerfully encapsulate the creative process. It begins by no longer applying the term to individuals. If calling an individual “a genius” sounds pompous and grandiose, describing some thing as “genius” is commonplace. “That was a genius move,” I find myself saying too often for it to actually mean very much. Or, “I wasn’t crazy about the last season of Mad Men, but the final scene was genius.”And he sums up by quoting Miles Davis:
Moments, ideas, a single poem in a collection — a work of genius, no matter how individually wrought — is never the product of a single individual. We should stop thinking of genius as an attribute and instead start to think of it as a condition, a circumstance. . . .
When genius is considered circumstantial, it becomes contingent — precarious, rare, and magical. Nothing becomes predictable: genius is a river, and to ride it, we must build a vessel specific to the circumstances we find it in. . . .
This is genius as the spirit of circumstance — an environment, socially created, not an attribute of an isolated individual. I believe most artists who truly contemplate how and why they create ask themselves the question: “Does the work I do even belong to me?” Here I must think about Ortega y Gasset’s great study, Meditations on Quixote: “The reabsorption of circumstance is the concrete destiny of humanity […] I am myself plus my circumstance, and if I do not save it, I cannot save myself.”
“So What” or “Kind of Blue” . . . they were done in that era, the right hour, the right day, and it happened. It’s over; it’s on the record.Most people who have studied the history of art or literature have considered something like this. After all the genes of Italians in 1500 were not different from those of two centuries before or after, yet, boom, suddenly there was this astonishing generation of painters and sculptors. In Paris a forty-year explosion of creativity took art from the Academic through Impressionism, Art Nouveau, and Symbolism to Cubism, Surrealism, and Abstraction, a dizzying run that left artists and art lovers gasping. The leaders of these changes became as famous as any artists ever, but in some other time and place they might have been recreating the same frescoes on one church wall after another.
It's an ancient insight but bears repeating: any great achievement begins with catching the wave at just the right moment. Most of the power comes from the vast ocean and the globe-spanning wind; the individual creator can contribute only a few bits of foam.